by Timothy White
It is the poet's responsibility to foresee the future, and it is his neighbor's duty to prevent the worst of it from taking place. With "Amused To Death," surely one of the most provocative and musically dazzling records of the decade, Roger Waters has fulfilled his part of the bargain.
It was three years before Operation Desert Storm that Waters, the British founder and former chief composer of Pink Floyd, began work on "Amused To Death," his third solo album, by writing "Perfect Sense," a two-part song suite envisioning a world in which live television transmissions of war and upheaval become the principal form of mass entertainment. According to the album's thesis, since there is nothing in the history of civilization that generates more profit for the power elite than war, its creators see the enterprise as a can't-miss proposition.
"The idea for the album," says Waters, "was a strangely prophetic one. I was working within the general metaphor of a gorilla watching television, the ape being a symbol for anyone who's been sitting with his mouth open in front of network and cable news for the last 10 years. The record explores the idea of television as medicine: It's either healing us or killing us. The truth is it's doing both, healing us as a target audience but killing off our respective cultures."
If "Perfect Sense" expresses the corporate philosophy for what Waters calls "conflict programming," then it is the thundering trio of tracks that compose "What God Wants (Parts IIII)" that spell out the rationalization for this odious stroke of global hucksterism.
"What sparked the writing of 'What God Wants' was the accumulation of all the 'God-is-on-our-side' claptrap from Desert Storm," says Waters. "It just seems so crass that we're reaching the end of a millenium and yet, even with our incredible ability to exchange information between cultures, we still cling to our narrow dogmas. Thanks to television, we watched a murky missiles-and-fireworks display from the roof of a Baghdad hotel, and learned no more than we could see with our own eyes which was deliberate. Now Bush is shopping the election-year idea of invading Iraq again and it's all the same cheap, dishonest game show." >From the start, Waters realized that, in order for "Amused To Death" to be terrifying, it had to be woven around rock'n'roll that was convincing. Listeners familiar with Waters' distinctive but uneven earlier solo offerings ("The Pros And Cons of Hitchhiking," 1984; "Radio K.A.O.S," 1987) will find the new album to be much closer in mood and execution to Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side Of The Moon" (1973) and "The Wall" (1979), for which Waters was the guiding creative force. However, it must be stated that, from the near-tactile quality of its musical fiber to the epic scope of its theme, "Amused To Death" is a masterful rock parable that ranks with or surpasses the Floyd's finest work. Give this record your full concentration for one listening and be riveted to the point of palpable distress. Play it just once more and you will be hooked in perpetuity, its brilliant design etched in your brainpan, each lavish mise-en-scene invading your dreams. Waters' imploring vocals have never been more polymorphic, changing in shape and coloration as they rise from a hiss to a clarion call, and they traverse a narrative path that's darkly iridescent with spooky detail. No meadow footfall, flutter of a fax machine. or throttled surge in the cockpit of an F-1 bomber is overlooked in the album's lustrous auditory spectrum. Yet the foreboding noises are so nimbly merged with Patrick Leonard's sighing keyboards, the frightful beauty of Jeff Beck's lead guitar, and the chordal ring of Andy Fairweather Low's rhythm passages that they become a single vivid scheme. It's a grim feast of sound, enthralling and unforgettable.
But the accomplishment doesn't stop there, because the human dimension of its storyline is also fully explored. We get skin-close to a serenely detached young F-1 ace from Cleveland whose on-camera high-altitude bombing runs make him a mammoth video star. And, within the pitiless logic of "conflict programming," the same fate befalls a philosophy student slain in Tiananmen Square.
"In the more than five years it took to make this record, my songwriting has become more passive, more of a conduit, with less ego," says Waters. "And it now allows me to attach more directly to the individual experiences l'm writing about. Like that of the imaginary girl in Tiananmen Square. It allows me to enter her mind, to give her an engineer for a father and a part-time job as a pastry chef, and it allows me to weep for her. Maybe," he adds, "I've succeeded in the last five to 10 years in tearing down more of my own wall."
Aspects of "Amused To Death" were molded by the onrush of events that paralleled its assembly. Waters feels that a project he interrupted the recording to undertake likewise influenced his personal transformation~the massive charity concert, "The Wall~Berlin 1990," which he staged in the former no man's land on Potzdamer Platz as a benefit for the Memorial Fund for Disaster Relief. The spectacular show and live album raised $10 million for the care of international victims of disasters, with the concert's companion home video continuing to gather funds through sales of a half-million pieces in the U.S. alone. Waters has called the World War II death of his own father (an RAF pilot) "a wrenching waste." On "Amused To Death," he openly mourns the dad he never knew in the song "Three Wishes," intoning at its dramatic crest: "I wish somebody'd help me write this song/I wish when I was young/My old man had not been gone."
Waters notes that the only enduring rogues in war television as delineated on "Amused To Death" happen to be the peacemakers~because they threaten the programming schedule. And the biggest villains on conflict TV are the victims who dare call for forgiveness and reconciliation. Nobody likes a killjoy, and hatred as hedonism~as described in the title song of "Amused To Death"~is destined to become "the greatest show on earth."
If there have been intervals of late when this forecast seems as if it may already be unfolding, then "Amused To Death," due for release from Columbia Sept. 1, may not reach us an instant too soon. "At the start of my record," says Waters, "an actual World War I survivor speaks about a fallen comrade he couldn't carry to safety. There's something in me that says the sentiments of that survivor are an experience common to all humanity. It's the feeling of 'Is there something more I could have done?' In my own life, I'd like to learn the answer to that question if I can."